The Tax Man Cometh . . . and He’s Here to Help

If you’re like me and you’re a word lover, the IRS tax forms with all their lines and numbers send you into a panic attack. I get it. No matter what political persuasion you are or whether taxes bring you joyous refunds or difficult fees, filling out the dang forms can be a stressful endeavor.

If only you could get help—good help, help who knows what they’re talking about. If only there was a website that would answer your questions about your life as a writer and whether or not all of those expenses count on your tax returns (even if that long-sought-after royalty check has yet to arrive . . . or be promised).

Today, my friends, “if only” is here. I offer a helper whose passion is Tax Solutions for Writers (which also happens to be the name of his website). Gary Hensley was an accountant for his entire life, an IRS agent and auditor for part of it, and one of the guys who answered the phone for TurboTax if someone needed help.

He knows whereof he speaks. [Update: Gary Hensley passed away in 2018.]

Every year, our Professional Writing department at Taylor University invites Gary to talk to our students about acting like writers and filing their taxes as such. (In addition, you can catch Gary every year at numerous locations, including Midwest Writers Workshop where he is always one of our most popular speakers.) Or you can go to his website that has every question you can think of, and many you probably haven’t.

taxes

Here are just a few things I have learned from Gary about handling my tax returns.

(1) You don’t need to be an official “business” to be in business as a writer and to file a Schedule C for deductions. If you are busy writing (sending out articles, researching that novel, attending conferences to improve your skills), you are a writer and should treat yourself as a professional on your tax return.

(2) Purchase a $5 planner that you can carry with you. In it, document every single activity that you do that shows your activity as a writer. Write down what you did at your desk (your home office area) each day. Track the time you spent writing and what you did. This separates you as an active writer (even if you’re not published) from someone who is sitting around thinking he’d like to write a book someday. You are actively writing. That makes you a writer.

(3) Then use those daily slots to document writer expenses. Maybe you subscribed to a particular magazine or website to help you with information for an article or book. Maybe you attended a conference. Maybe you purchased books about the topic you’re writing about or simply to improve your writing skills. Then, of course, find a place to keep those matching receipts.

(4) In that diary, also keep track of mileage for writerly activities (not just miles, but write in the actual odometer readings to and from anything that had to do with your work—and write next to it the business/writerly purpose for your trip). Perhaps you drove to the library to do research. Maybe you drove to interview someone and purchased lunch for you both. Track the mileage to that writers conference.

(5) Get a separate bank account for your business that has a debit card attached. Again, you don’t need to be an official DBA or LLC or Ltd. or anything. But this particular bank account holds only the money that you earn as a writer (yes, even that $35 for the column you wrote), and it tracks anything you purchase for your business (printer paper, stamps, books, conferences). Maybe you don’t have income, or nothing really worthy to call that. Doesn’t matter. Get in the habit of separating out your writer life from the rest of your life. I know, you may need to lend yourself money back and forth in order to cover a business expense (like a conference—the $35 article won’t cover that), and Gary explains how to do that on his website. The point is to keep your writerly income and out-go separate from the rest of your household.taxes-2

All of this documentation will make it easier both when you go to fill out next year’s form and if you ever get audited. These expenses are deductible on the Schedule C, so you want to take advantage of them and you want them to be accurate.

I know. The forms are difficult, but it’s time to take hold of your writer self and claim your professional status. Check out Gary’s website for answers to other questions.

And go purchase that journal to track this year’s activities! (Oh, and write down the odometer reading before you go and when you get back!)

Great Editors: Betsy Lerner Helps Writers Understand Editors

I love this book and was so excited when I found it a few years ago. I go to it often and read excerpts to my editing class. Betsy Lerner created a product that helps writers understand editors and vice versa. Titled The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers (Putnam, 2000, updated 2010), the first section of this book describes some general types of writers, and the second section peeks behind the editor’s desk and into the publishing world. Lerner knows wherof she speaks having been an editor for fifteen years before becoming an agent. forest She says, “This book is about what I’ve seen and what I know. I wrote it to help writers achieve or get closer to their goals. At the very least, I hope that in contemplating your life as a writer you may get some perspective on your work and in gaining that perspective, see the forest for the trees” (9).

I teach my students that, as editors, they are working in tandem with authors–Betsy describes it as an intricate dance.  The manuscript arrives on the editor’s desk. The editor will close the office door (or bring the manuscript home where she won’t be interrupted, she hopes) and sit back to read through the entire manuscript–either electronically or on hard copy. The scary red pen may be wielded–perhaps on the manuscript itself but certainly on a nearby notepad. She’s taking notes about first impressions–what’s working and what isn’t, what’s clear and what isn’t, when the pacing seems slow or a character seems out of place. She’s not correcting grammar or sentences; she’s seeing if the book in its entirety works.

The best editor is a sensitive reader who is thinking with a pencil in her hand, questioning word choice, syntax, and tense. An editor is someone who probes the writer with insightful questions, who smooths transitions or suggests them where none exist. A good editor knows when the three pages at the beginning of a chapter are throat-clearing. Start here, she’ll mark in the margin, this is where your book begins. And she’ll know when you should stop, spare you from hitting your reader over the head as if your point were a two-by-four. (194)

A good editor is careful. She needs to explain her point clearly and she needs to be respectful of the author. She knows that it’s never easy for an author to finally turn in a completed manuscript only to have it come back covered in comments and suggestions.

Editing is a science and an art. There is a basic architecture to every book, and if the author has a wobbly narrative leg or an insufficient thesis to stand on, the editor must find the blueprint or create one. What an editor learns as she gains experience is that while no two manuscripts are exactly alike, certain predictable patterns crop up, and as with math problems, the more experience you have, the more readily the solutions appear. (196)

I tell my students that, while they may see the problem in the manuscript clearly, they need to be careful and kind when making the suggestions. The best editors build trust with their authors by giving positive as well as negative feedback. They need to be respectful of the words (most of my students, writers themselves, understand that). In short, they need to be good dance partners. But then, so does the author. If you’re fortunate enough to be working with an editor, trust that person. Yes, it’s still your book, but the editor is going to be your very best reader. No one else is going to read your book with the same attention and care. Let your editor help you, as Betsy Lerner so aptly explains, “see the forest for the trees.”

Tell me about your experiences with editors. How have they helped your manuscript improve?

Great Editors–Sol Stein Helps Us Learn to Edit Ourselves

I just finished reading Sol Stein’s excellent book, Stein on Writing–A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and StrategiesI found myself marking passage after passage, “This will be great to teach my students in my feature article writing class,” or “Wow, that’s a real encouragement to me,” or “I never thought of it that way before.”

Born in 1926 and now 88 years old, Sol Stein founded the book publishing firm of Stein and Day in 1962 which operated until 1989. During his tenure there, according to his website, Stein “edited and published some of the outstanding writers of the 20th century, including James Baldwin, David Frost, Jack Higgins, Elia Kazan, Dylan Thomas, Lionel Trilling, W. H. Auden, Jacques Barzun, and three heads of state.”

Describing his editing of Elia Kazan, Stein says,

The author I have spent more time editing than any other is Elia Kazan, winner of two Academy Awards and director of five Pulitzer Prize Stein on Writingplays who turned to fiction and became a number-one bestselling novelist. In his autobiography Kazan said, “I was now in a new profession. My publisher Sol Stein was my producer, and my editor Sol Stein was my director. . . . He saw quickly . . . that I delighted in saying the same thing over and over, thereby minimizing its impact (‘One plus one equals a half,” Sol would say’).” (205)

Throughout this book, Stein offers advice to writers of both fiction and nonfiction on the basics of plot, pacing, dialog, characterization, and just plain how to be a better writer and get noticed by editors. To flesh out the concepts he teaches, Stein uses anecdotes from his editing of great writers and from working with students in his classrooms. Speaking of his advice to Kazan:

Eliminating redundance was an important factor in [Kazan’s] novel The Arrangement remaining number one on the bestseller charts for thirty-seven consecutive weeks. . . . Catching “one-plus-ones” is a function of what is called “line editing.” Shouldn’t writers rely on editors to catch things like that? The hard fact is that editors do a lot less line editing than they used to. If a novel requires a lot of line editing, it is less likely to be taken on by a publisher, who has to consider the cost of editing. Which is why it is incumbent upon writers to become, in effect, their own editors. (205-206)

I know, I know. You want to be a writer. And I do know how difficult it is to see the forest for the trees. And, yes, you do indeed need readers in a critique group, you need editors and copyeditors who will see things that completely escape you. But here’s the deal. Write that article or essay or book and then let it simmer for awhile. Go away from it. Let others read it. Reread it yourself–slowly, carefully, out loud. If you’re fortunate enough to get published, editors and copyeditors will still bleed red ink all over it (or at least Microsoft Word comments), but it won’t be because you didn’t do your job.

Stein continues:

The biggest difference between a writer and a would-be writer is their attitude toward rewriting. The writer, professional or not, looks forward to the opportunity of excising words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters that do not work and to improving those that do. Many a would-be writer thinks whatever he puts down on paper is by that act somehow indelible. . . .

Judith Applebaum quotes Hemingway as saying to an interviewer, “I rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.” Asked what stumped him, Hemingway said, “Getting the words right.”

Of the most successful authors I have worked with, I can think of only one who fiercely resisted revising. . . .Unwillingness to revise usually signals an amateur. (277)

Sure, we all want to be published. Sure, we’re in a hurry to get our words out into the world. But let’s make that writing, when published, something of which we can be proud.

Like Hemingway, let’s take our time getting the words right.

 

What Martin Eden (aka Jack London) Teaches about Writing and Editing

As I continue to write about editors and editing, I came across some very interesting insights in Jack London‘s masterful work, Martin Eden. Written as a thinly veiled autobiography, the story follows a low-class man and his desire for self-improvement in order to impress a high-class woman with whom he has fallen in love. He reads voraciously; learns language, grammar, and syntax; and teaches himself manners, politics, and philosophy. Eventually, he decides to become a writer–after all, he has many stories to tell from his travels around the world as a sailor.

Alas, every story he sends in is rejected and returned in what we would call the SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). For years, he toils. He goes back and rereads the magazines to which he’s submitting to discover the “secret formula” for getting accepted. He spends hours and hours working at his craft, steadfastly refusing to bow to pressure from the woman he loves (and everyone else in his world) to just “get a job.”

He knows he’s a writer. He can feel it in his bones. He knows he has stories to tell, and he knows his stories are better than anything he’s reading in the magazines.

His money runs out. He barely survives. And the rejections keep coming. Martin begins to wonder:

He began to doubt that editors were real men. They seemed cogs in a machine. That was what it was, a machine. He poured his soul into stories, articles, and poems, and entrusted them to the machine. . . . There was no human editor at the other end, but a mere cunning arrangement of cogs that change the manuscript from one envelope to another and stuck on the stamps. (160-61)martin eden

The chief qualification of ninety-nine percent of all editors is failure. They have failed as writers. Don’t think they prefer the drudgery of the desk and the slavery to their circulation and to the business manager to the joy of writing. They have tried to write, and they have failed. And right there is the cursed paradox of it. Every portal to success in literature is guarded by those watch-dogs, the failures in literature. The editors, sub-editors, associate editors, most of them, and the manuscript-readers for the magazines and book-publishers, most of them, nearly all of them, are men who wanted to write and who have failed. And yet they, of all creatures under the sun the most unfit, are the very creatures who decide what shall and what shall not find its way into print–they, who have proved themselves not original, who have demonstrated that they lack the divine fire, sit in judgment upon originality and genius. (322-23)

Ever felt that way as a writer? Ever felt like the editors either don’t exist or are simply cogs in machines that send out nothing but rejections?

As an editor, I do have to take a bit of offense that Martin sees me as “unfit.” But as a writer, yes, I have at times wondered if anyone with any taste receives–and rejects–my queries, my articles, my blood-and-guts pieces of creative nonfiction.

I’m sure many writers feel the same.

But let me put in a little bit of a plug on behalf of myself and my editor friends.

  • We truly do want the very best writing. But, you need to understand how subjective that is. It’s a gut reaction to a piece of writing. And if you get rejected one place and you really believe in your piece, keep trying.
  • Everything needs to be edited–everything. Trust us. We will work with you to make your writing the best it can be.
  • Editors are human, and each one of us is different. No two editors will edit a piece the same way. Take the advice, but also understand that we are in a conversation with you when we edit.
  • We are busy. Sure, no one wants to wait months for a response, but we’re reading hundreds (sometimes thousands) of pieces. Hence, the form letters that get returned in your SASE. We simply don’t have time to give personal responses to everything. (That said, if you get any kind of response–such as a quick hand-written note on that rejection letter–take that as a huge compliment and keep on trying with that editor.)
  • And generally we aren’t failed writers who defaulted to editing. Many of us write on the side (and get the same treatment from fellow editors). There’s no club. Our work has to stand on its own, just as with everyone else. Many of us have no desire to write at all–editing is our calling and we’re committed to that.
  • Rejection doesn’t mean failure. A piece can be rejected for any number of reasons. It may be that your writing isn’t good–but if you’re in a critique group and you’re taking advice, that probably isn’t the case. It could be things you have no way of knowing–maybe a story like yours has already been accepted and now yours isn’t needed. It could be that gut thing I wrote of above.
  • We really do care about the submission guidelines, the formatting advice we give you, etc. Read these guidelines and follow them. Because we receive hundreds of manuscripts, if it’s apparent you can’t follow the simplest guidelines, then we won’t take the time to read what you sent.

Eventually, Martin Eden does find the success he so long sought, but it comes at a price. He discovers the down side of fame and some of the hypocrisy in publishing, which begins his undoing.

Bottom line, Martin Eden teaches us that it takes persistence, faith in yourself, and hard hard hard work to be a writer.

Don’t give up. Don’t let the editors get you down. Realize that they aren’t “rejection machines.”

Nothing’s perfect, but work with us. Your great writing will find its home.

Quotations taken from Jack London’s Martin Eden: The Annotated Edition by Dennis E. Hensley, Ph.D. Upland, IN: Taylor University Press, 2006. This edition is pictured above.

Great Editors–Arthur Levine (and Harry Potter)

potterOne thing I’m discovering in my quest to sing the praises of the unsung heroes of publishing is that, too often, the unsung heroes like it that way. They’re quiet. They stay in the background. They enjoy the vicarious experience of watching their authors bask in the fame of a book that becomes a phenomenon.

Chances are, you’ll know the name of the author, but the editor of said book? Not so much.

So you know the author of the Harry Pottter series. (Who doesn’t?)

But do you know the name of her editor? (I’m guessing you don’t.)

Today meet Arthur Levine, the man behind the magic.

He actually has his own imprint (Arthur A. Levine Books founded in 1996) within Scholastic.  I just finished reading an interview with him in The Washington Post, published in July 2007 just prior to the release of the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Of course he, as editor, knew how the saga ended before the rest of us anxious readers. But he didn’t get caught up in the hype (well, he was thrilled, but he kept his focus in the right place).

“I’m responsible for the books,” he says.

I’m going to mention a couple of his great quotes from that article here, but I encourage you to read the entire interview by Bob Thompson: “The Wizardly Editor Who Caught the Golden Snitch.”

As I wrote about with Maxwell Perkins and F. Scott Fitzgerald, we might not have had J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter if not for Arthur Levine. The Harry Potter series was first published in Great Britain by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, but . . .

It wasn’t Bloomsbury’s responsibility to sell the U.S. rights to Harry. The company didn’t even own them. But when Levine showed up in Bologna seeking future classics for his new Scholastic imprint, Bloomsbury’s rights director gave him a set of Potter galleys. He read them on the plane home. When the book came up for auction, he kept bidding until, at $105,000, his last competitor dropped out. “I would have been willing to go further than that if I had to,” he says.

Levine must have told this story a thousand times by now. But there’s still excitement in his voice as he describes how he got instantly hooked — “first chapter, first pages” — on Harry.

I recall having the same feeling. I knew from the first page of the first book that I was in for an extraordinary ride–it was Rowling’s incredible writing that blew me away. Not just the extensive plotlines and characters and pacing and all of those things an editor looks for; it was her use of words. I remember how, when the first movie came out, and the camera pans into the great hall, I thought to myself, Yep, that’s it. That’s how I saw it when I read it. Her writing and descriptions absolutely astounded me.

Imagine being her editor! Levine lets us in on a little bit of the process:

He [Levine] was as surprised as any ordinary fan, he says, by plot and character developments as they arose. Which is exactly how he and Rowling wanted it. . . .

Sometimes, he would say, “I do not know what’s going on here,” and Rowling would say, “I didn’t want you to have that reaction at this point, so I think I’m going to move some information.”

At other times, when he asked about something in one of the earlier volumes, she would say, “That’s a good question. I’m okay with your wondering that here. I will answer that in Book 5.”

Blown away!

But Levine understands that aside from the hype and the merchandising and the trinkets and the Disney World theme park, it all comes back to where it started. With the books.

For a while, he’d felt as though he were living his own version of the Harry Potter story: Mild-mannered editor becomes publishing wizard. “I can still remember thinking: ‘Wow — even more people have discovered Harry Potter,’ ” he says. But eventually he decided “to be happy whenever something great happened” and then to bring “my focus back to where it needed to be.”

On the books.

Which, he maintains, are what’s driving the phenomenon in the first place.

And that’s where all great editors land. No, they aren’t at the book signings. No one is chanting their name. No one is standing in line awaiting a copy of their book at the worldwide midnight release date . . .

But for the great editors, that’s just fine. Great books are being put out into the world.

And that’s what matters.

Great Editors–Robert Loomis at Random House

My decision to use my blog to focus on the unsung heroes of publishing–the editors in the trenches–has sent me on an adventure of websites and book reading and rather intense study. But I am loving every minute of it. It’s just not all happening as quickly as my self-imposed blogging schedule might like. But I’m learning along the way about what makes great editors, and I want to pass what I’m learning along to you.

In any case, my trail led me from Maxwell Perkins (see Part 1 and Part 2 of my homage to him) to Bennett Cerf (one of the founders of Random House publishers, more about him later) to Robert Loomis, legendary editor at Random House who retired in 2011 after 54 years.

Right there. That should make him a hero.

You’ve probably not heard of him. But chances are, you’ve heard of some of the people he edited, such as Maya Angelou and William Styron (Loomis edited Sophie’s Choice, among others).

Indeed, the title of an article in The New York Times about his retirement announcement captures his essence: “Nurturer of Authors Is Closing the Book.”

The New York Times article says that upon hearing of his retirement, Maya Angelou said in an email, “Robert Loomis has been my editor since 1968. He has guided and encouraged me through 31 books. I can’t imagine trusting a manuscript in the hands of anyone else. I am not finished writing, so I cannot let him retire.”

That’s the kind of relationship great editors have with writers. The writers need those editors. They love them. They entrust their works and words to them. They know those editors make them that much better as writers. As the article title says, great editors are nurturers of writers.

In fact, from The New York Times archives is this tidbit from “Making Books; Familiarity Breeds Content“:

But while the news accounts go to the authors and editors who pop from one publishing house to another, the less celebrated but more interesting tales are those of continuity and loyalty. Sometimes they even become the stuff of literary legend.

Which brings us back to Ms. Angelou. Her editor is Robert Loomis, an executive editor at Random House, one of publishing’s hall of fame editors. “We are an item,” Ms. Angelou said. ”I would go with Bob if he left and went to a university press. He knows what I hope to achieve in all my work. I don’t know anybody as fierce, simply fierce, but he’s as tender as he’s tough.” . . .

Here’s an insight to a writer-editor relationship. Ms. Angelou said: ”He’s a nuisance. He asks these questions: ‘Why did you put a semicolon there, to give the thought some breath? Is that the word you really want?’ I’ve said to him many times you’re bullheaded, I’ll never speak to you again and then I send him night letters or telegrams telling him he’s right.

”When he finished the manuscript of my last volume he said: ‘Maya, thank you. This is great.’ In 33 years he never used that word for me. Great is good to him.”

In fact, Bennett Cerf, co-founder of Random House (did you know they were so named because they printed “random” books?), counted on the relationships his editors had with their authors to bring those authors into Random House and onto their publication lists. If Random House was able to lure an editor away from a competitor, often that editor’s authors came along.

at random

In his book, At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf (Random House, 1977), Cerf describes great editors like this:

A good editor, I think, like a good author, has to be born with some of the necessary talents, like a good memory and some imagination. But he also needs to have acquired a fairly broad range of interests, a working knowledge of the English language and a good supply of general information–the more the better–so that he can understand what an author is trying to do and be of help to him in doing it. An editor has to have read widely enough to be able to recognize and appreciate good writing when he sees it. . . .

An editor has to be able to get along with authors–which is not always easy. When the relationship is a good one, an editor can be extremely helpful by serving as a kind of sounding board for an author’s ideas and intentions, and by making suggestions aimed at sharpening and clarifying what the author wants to say. Also, the editor can be of value in pointing out parts of a manuscript that should be cut out because they are repetitive, or dull, or unnecessary. (219)

Being a good editor means caring about books, caring about language, and being a constant learner. Being one of the greats takes perseverance, relationship-building, honesty coupled with kindness, and a big dose of nurturing.

All of that because of a deep desire to help an author write the best book possible.

Great Editors–Maxwell Perkins, My New Hero (Part 2)

As I noted in last week’s post, I want to talk about the role editors play–and how vitally important they are. We can thank Maxwell Perkins for believing in F. Scott Fitzgerald and helping get his debut novel published. In his book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, A. Scott Berg describes the relationship between Perkins and Fitzgerald and quotes some of the correspondence back and forth as Fitzgerald worked on his novels.

After the great commercial success of This Side of Paradise, the publisher was ready and willing for more (funny how that works . . . ). Fitzgerald wrote short stories and another book for Scribner’s, and eventually he told Perkins about his next project, a book titled Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires. Perkins didn’t like the title. Fitzgerald had thrown out several other ideas, and The Great Gatsby was one, but Fitzgerald preferred Trimalchio in West Egg.

The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby

When the manuscript finally landed on Perkin’s desk, Fitzgerald sent a letter explaining that he wanted his latest title, but he wasn’t altogether happy with the middle of the book. “Do tell me the absolute truth, your first impression of the book, & tell me anything that bothers you in it” (64). Perkins reported that he loved it, but “said he had several points of criticism, all of which stemmed from his dissatisfaction with the character of Gatsby himself” (65). Perkins felt that he could spot Tom Buchanan if he met him on the street, but Gatsby’s character was vague. Perkins suggested that Fitzgerald describe Gatsby as distinctly as he had described Tom and Daisy.

Perkins also understood that Gatsby’s past needed to maintain a certain air of mystery, but Perkins didn’t want to shortchange the readers. He suggested that Fitzgerald pepper in some phrases that would give the reader some clues, “The total lack of an explanation through so large a part of the story does seem to be a defect” (65). That caused a problem at the novel’s fulcrum–the scene in the Plaza Hotel. Tom calls Gatsby’s bluff, but it wasn’t effective because the reader didn’t know what the “bluff” was.

Perkins wrote to Fitzgerald, “I don’t know how to suggest a remedy. I hardly doubt you will find one and I am only writing to say that I think it does need something to hold up to the pace set, and ensuing.” Perkins was also concerned that the parts of Gatsby’s past that Fitzgerald did divulge were all dumped together in one spot. Perkins suggested, “I thought you might find ways to let the truth of some of his claims like ‘Oxford’ and his army career come out bit by bit in the course of actual narrative,” although he added, “The general brilliant quality of the book makes me ashamed to make even these criticisms” (66).

Fitzgerald began his revisions–from the title page. He went back to the title Perkins had liked, The Great Gatsby. He responded to everything Max suggested. He broke up the block of information about Gatsby’s past and sprinkled the details into earlier chapters. He made Gatsby’s claim of his time at Oxford come up in several conversations. And one key change:

Again stimulated by something Perkins had said, Fitzgerald worked a small wonder with a certain habit of Gatsby’s. In the original manuscript Gatsby had called people “old man,” “old fellow,” and a number of other affected appellations. Now Fitzgerald seized upon the one Perkins had liked so much, adding it a dozen times, making it into a leitmotive. The phrase became so persistent a mannerism that in the Plaza Hotel scene it provoked Tom Buchanan into an outburst: “That’s a great expression of yours, isn’t it? All this ‘old sport’ business. Where’d you pick that up?” (69)

Through the process of writing, Perkins encouraged, advised, and offered suggestions, but always knew that the brilliance lay with the author. He simply wanted to make what was already great that much better. In the end, Fitzgerald wrote that it was Maxwell Perkins who helped him write a book he was proud of.

That’s what we editors do. We try to take what’s already brilliant and make it that much better. We hope we can help authors publish books that they, too, can be proud of.

You authors out there, have you worked with an outstanding editor? I’d love to know who that person is so we can all learn from the best!

 

 

 

 

Great Editors–Maxwell Perkins, My New Hero (Part 1)

So as it turns out, if it weren’t for an editor, there might not have been The Great Gatsby.

Yay for editors!

I have decided that–while it’s terrific to review books and interview authors–I’m going to go a slightly different direction in my blog in the coming weeks. I’m going to study up on some great editors from the past, and I’m going to interview some great editors of the present.

Because, well, I’m an editor. I know what it takes to work in the salt mines of editing manuscripts to make the good–the great–that much better. I know what it means to study typeset pages until your eyes cross, making sure no typos slip through because I want the author to look good. I know what it means to be in the background and let the author have the credit (as it should be).

I just want to bring some of these people out of the shadows and learn from them and, in so doing, pass along some info to you, my readers, and to the students in my editing classes.

After my last post about teaching editing, Rich Adin (who writes the blog “An American Editor“) commented, “We can teach people to be editors like me; we cannot teach people to be an editor like Maxwell Perkins. Perkins had that rare gift that made him the Michelangelo of editing.” Thanks so much for that comment, Rich, because that sent me on a quest to learn from the best.

perkinsAnd that sent me to A. Scott Berg’s book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978).

Seriously, I’m so excited about what I’m reading I can barely stand it.

Maxwell Perkins (1884-1947) was the editor at Charles Scribner’s and Sons for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. The book is filled with quotes from correspondence between Perkins and these writers and anecdotes of how he worked with them–cajoling them, encouraging them, offering insight and advice on the big picture of each manuscript, and advocating for them at the meetings of the editorial board.

Mind officially blown.

No, I will never be Max Perkins–and, no, I cannot teach anyone to be Max Perkins. The next Max Perkinses will arise from folks with that internal “gift” that is, simply put, God-given.

But I want to learn from the best and pass along to my students what they, too, can learn from the best.

And for my students out there–I tell you this all the time–you probably won’t start out as full-fledged editors. Max didn’t even study literature or writing in college (Harvard); instead, he studied economics. But his real love was words, and it was a freshman English instructor who, as Berg puts it, “certainly . . . developed Max’s editorial instincts” (32). After graduation, Max went to work writing for The New York Times as the writer who hung around all night and picked up the “suicides, fires, and other nocturnal catastrophes” (33).

His first job at Charles Scribner’s and Sons was in the advertising department where he spent four and a half years before ascending to the hallowed fifth floor–the editorial floor.

And, students, guess what he did there . . .

He was a proofreader!

For the most part, Maxwell Perkins’s duties as an editor were limited to proofreading galleys–long printed sheets, each containing the equivalent of three book pages–and to other perfunctory chores. Occasionally he was called upon to correct the grammar in a gardening book or arrange the selections in school anthologies of classic short stories and translations of Chekhov. The work demanded little creativity. (12)

But then here’s what happened. A regular Scribner author named Shane Leslie became friends with a young author from Minnesota. Leslie sent this young author’s manuscript to the editors at Scribner. It got passed from editor to editor (no one liked it) until it ended up on Perkins’s desk. While he liked it, he was forced to write to the author and decline it (the lowly proofreading editor didn’t have much sway at first). But Perkins saw something in the young man’s writing, and the rejection letter held out some hope and encouragement to the young man who went to work revising and revising and revising.

The manuscript came back much improved, and Perkins went to work doing everything he could (and it was a lot) to get Scribner’s to publish it. At one tense editorial meeting, he said, “My feeling is that a publisher’s first allegiance is to talent. And if we aren’t going to publish talent like this, it is a very serious thing” (15-16).

The young author was F. Scott Fitzgerald. The book was This Side of Paradise (Scribner’s 1920).

What about The Great Gatsby? More on that next week.

Suffice it to say, Maxwell Perkins is my new editorial hero. And I’m his newest student.

 

How to Support an Author’s New Book: 11 Ideas For You

So last week I talked about Literary Citizenship and why I love it. A key, of course, is supporting our fellow authors. In fact, that’s what it’s all about. Chuck Sambuchino offers 11 ideas for how we can support new books.

Writers In The Storm Blog

By Chuck Sambuchino

large_5595133805My Writer’s Digest coworker, Brian A. Klems, recently geared up for the release of his first book — a humorous guide for fathers called OH BOY, YOU’RE HAVING A GIRL: A DAD’S SURVIVAL GUIDE TO RAISING DAUGHTERS (Adams Media). On top of that, my coworker Robert Brewer (editor of Writer’s Market) recently got a publishing deal for a book of his poetry.

So I find myself as a cheerleader for my writing buddies — trying to do what I can to help as their 2013 release dates approach. I help in two ways: 1) I use my own experience of writing & publishing books to share advice on what they can expect and plan for; and 2) I simply do whatever little things I can that help in any way.

This last part brings up an important point: Anyone can support an author’s…

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Why I Love Literary Citizenship

Much is being written lately on the topic of literary citizenship. Since this was the topic of my Master’s final research paper, I thought I’d go ahead and weigh in with my two cents. (I could write 50 pages, but I already did that. Let’s see if I can condense my thoughts here into a readable blog post!)

I just happened upon this term in the last couple of years–but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. You see, I’ve worked in publishing for thirty years and went back to school with the hopes of teaching at the college level. As I sat under Cathy Day, she (thankfully) talked to her students about what’s out there in the real world–how to join the literary world, how to get published, how to organize submissions, how to handle rejection, and how to find their “tribes” once they leave the cocoon of a university writing program–everything I already knew was extremely important for writers to understand.

I was thrilled that she talked about this because too often (I feel) creative writing programs focus only on craft without giving students the tools to know what to do with their writing. Yes, I get it. You have to first be a good writer, no, an excellent writer. That’s a given. Roxane Gay puts it this way:

You’re not going to become a better writer by focusing more on getting your writing published than writing work that merits publication. You won’t become a better writer by resenting the success of others or spending most of your time indulging in conspiracy theories about publishing. Yes, sometimes the game is rigged, but mostly it is not. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the wrong things when so much information about writers and what they’re doing or could be doing is readily available via social networks, blogs, and the like.

So of course, being great writers is step one, and I don’t advise that writers let themselves get distracted by the marketing side at the expense of their product. But, after thirty years in publishing, I come at this with a different perspective, and so I maintain that students should be taught what to do with their writing. How to research the literary magazines or the online sites or the commercial magazines or the book publishers that might be interested in their kind of writing. How to write query letters. How to approach an agent. How to create a book proposal. That’s all part of learning to write.

Because, in the end, while writing can indeed be an end in itself, most of us write because we want people to read what we wrote. We want to share it.

And I’m sure it’s my years in publishing talking, but I’ve sat on the other side of the table, needing to help authors understand the importance of marketing their own books.

I know, what a pain after doing all the work of actually writing the book to have to be burdened with actually doing the marketing, too. Isn’t the publisher supposed to do that? That’s the question Becky Tuch asks and precisely why she detests literary citizenship.

But I understand the business side of publishing; it is a business after all and, if it doesn’t make money, none of us gets published. And yes, all those big-name authors get all of the marketing dollars and the rest of us are left pretty much to fend for ourselves, but there’s a reason for that as well. There’s a statistic in Christian publishing that says 9 percent of the authors sell 80 percent of the books. That means that 9 percent of writers are pretty much carrying their publishing houses. So let them have the marketing dollars! In secular publishing, the number may be similar–and we can be sure that it is indeed the big names who get taken care of. Those authors help keep their companies open, which then allows them to take a chance on little ol’ me.

But here’s the deal–literary citizenship is not to be entered into because you want to sell your books. Instead, it’s about joining Renaissance Fairethe literary world because that’s who you are. Just as you might identify with those who join the worlds of ComiCon or Renaissance Faires because you have an affinity for comics and superheroes or feathered caps and falconry, so you join the world of Words and Books as a literary citizen because that’s who you are. You join with like-minded people to talk about what you love best.

The side effect of being “neighborly” in that world (by doing what many lit cit blog posts have discussed regarding ways to be literary citizens) is that when your article or book is published, you can naturally talk about it with those who care–and who will, in turn, talk about it with others. That’s where the “marketing” part actually begins to happen.

But literary citizenship doesn’t start there. It doesn’t start with “marketing” or “selling.” It’s not all about us. It’s not all about “gimme” as in “gimme your attention–me me me” as David Ebenbach describes in his article, Literary Citizenship Does Not Mean Gimme. Instead, it’s about joining a world of word lovers–reading, appreciating, talking about, and sharing one another’s work.

So let’s not hate literary citizenship, let’s embrace it because, in essence, it’s who we are. Let’s come together in this world of Words and Books enjoying what we love most and making sure it continues for all of us for a long, long time.